Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

Page 42

He was very drunk, and only half conscious of his body. All the same, his eyes burned and his joints ached, as though some ague was come upon him. He wished dimly that he could find relief in weeping, but with all he had drunk, his body was parched, his throat dry and sticky, and he felt obscurely that he did not deserve such relief.

A soft weight leaned against his leg, and the dog’s breath warmed the flesh of his calf. He reached down blindly with one hand, and stroked the silky head, over and over, breathing the strong musky smell of the animal, the motion keeping thought at bay until brandy and fatigue assumed that duty and his body relaxed. He dimly felt the wood of the table beneath his cheek, and heard the owl again, hooting in the dark.

When Tom Byrd came to find him, he was sound asleep, Gustav the dachshund on the floor beside him, a long watchful muzzle resting on his boot.

The badger’s sett was within a mile of the lodge, the gamekeeper assured them, and so they walked through the woods, enjoying the mildness of the evening. So near to summer, the sun remained in the sky well past nine, and so their badger hunt was conducted in a dim, glowing light that made Grey feel as though they were on an expedition to capture elves or faeries, rather than a ferocious small animal.

Nothing had been said between himself and von Namtzen during the day, but the awareness that there were things to be said hung between them. Still, the gamekeeper and his son walked nearby, keeping an eye on Gustav, who trotted stolidly along, long nose lifted to the scents of the evening air, and so such talk as there was dealt with small, impersonal matters.

He had not known quite what to expect of a badger hunt. The gamekeeper had partially excavated the sett, which lay in the side of a hill, so that the mouth of a dark tunnel was visible. Gustav began to quiver with excitement as the wind changed, bearing a scent so pungently pronounced that even Grey’s feeble nose perceived it.

The dog’s hackles rose all down his back, and he began to growl enthusiastically, then to bark, as though in challenge to the badger. If a badger was in residence, it failed to emerge, though, and at von Namtzen’s sign, the gamekeeper loosed the dog, who shot for the tunnel’s entrance, paused for a moment to dig madly, dirt flying from the stubby paws, and then wriggled his broad shoulders into the earth and disappeared from view, tail stiff with excitement.

Sounds of snuffling and scratching came from the hole, and Grey suffered a moment’s nightmare, imagining what it must be like to go forward into darkness, enclosed, engulfed, swallowed by the earth, with the knowledge of teeth and fury lurking somewhere ahead, invisible.

He said something of this to von Namtzen, who laughed.

“Dogs, fortunately, are not hampered by imagination,” he assured Grey. “They live in the moment. No fear of the future.”

This attitude held an obvious appeal—but as Grey noted, some of its benefit depended upon what was happening at the particular moment. Just now, Gustav appeared to be experiencing a moment with an angry badger in it, and von Namtzen, burdened with imagination, seemed to fear the worst, clutching Grey’s arm with his one good hand and muttering German curses and exhortations, mixed with prayers.

Some one of these incantations must have proved effective, for after a heart-stopping period of silence, something moved at the entrance to the tunnel, and Gustav made his way slowly out of the bowels of the earth, dragging the body of his enemy.

The dog was allowed to disembowel his prey and roll on the gory remains in celebration, before being carried off in triumph by the gamekeeper to have a torn ear mended, leaving Grey and von Namtzen to follow as they would.

The sun had finally sunk below the trees, but the last of the fading light still washed the sky with a brilliant gold. It would be gray within moments, but for the space of a heartbeat, the branches of the forest were etched black against it, each twig, each leaf distinct and beautiful.

Grey and von Namtzen stood watching it, both struck for an instant. Grey heard Stephan’s breath leave him in a sigh, as the light began to fail.

“This is my favorite time of the day,” Stephan said.

“Really? You do not find it melancholy?”

“No, not at all. Everything is quiet. I feel…alone.”

“Allein?” Grey asked, as von Namtzen had spoken in English. “Allein oder einsam?” Alone, meaning “lonely,” or “in peace”—solitary?

“Allein. In Ruhe,” von Namtzen answered, smiling a little. “I am busy always in the daylight, and in the evening, there are the people—official banquets, entertainments. But no one wishes me to do anything while the light falls. You like this?” He nodded at the prospect before them. They had emerged from the forest at the crest of a small hill, not far from the lodge. Waldesruh and its stable lay a little below them, their solid lines gone soft with twilight, so that the lodge seemed about to vanish into the earth and be covered over by the trees, flowing dark and silent down from the slope behind it.

Grey might have found the thought that everything might vanish and they be left alone to face night in the forest somewhat daunting. At the moment, though, he recognized Stephan’s wistfulness, and shared it. To be quite alone, to lay one’s burdens at the feet of the trees, and lose them—if only for a moment—in the deepening shadows there.

“Ja,” he said. “Wunderschön.” Yes, he had a liking.

They stood for several minutes then, not speaking. Watching the last trace of color fade from the sky, the lacework of the branches begin to blur and merge with the dark as night crept ineluctably upward from the earth.

“So,” von Namtzen said after a time, quite casually. “What is it?”

Grey took a deep breath of the forest’s cool green air and explained the matter as concisely as he could.

“Oh, how most distressing to your family! My dear fellow, I am so sorry.” Von Namtzen’s voice was full of sympathy. “What will happen to him, do you suppose?”

“I don’t know. He will be tried, at a court-martial. And almost certainly will be found guilty. But the sentence…” His voice died away. The memory of Otway being dragged, screaming, to the gallows was one that haunted Grey daily, but he felt superstitiously that to speak of the possibility was to invoke it. “I don’t know,” he said again.

“He will be found guilty,” von Namtzen repeated, frowning. “There were witnesses, I understand, besides Captain Hauptmann?”

“There were. An officer named Custis—and myself.”

Von Namtzen stopped dead, and dropped the sack containing the badger, in order to grip Grey by the arm.

“Grosser Gott!”

“Yes, I believe that sums up the matter very well.”

“They will make you speak—testify—to it?”

“Unless I manage to be killed before he is court-martialed, yes.”

Von Namtzen made a sound of deep consternation, shaking his head.

“What will you do?” he asked, after a bit.

“Live in the moment,” Grey said, nodding at the bloodstained bag. “And hope that when my own moment comes, I, too, will walk out of the earth and see the sky again.”

Von Namtzen didn’t quite laugh, but snorted through his nose, and led the way through a stand of flowering trees that scattered tiny white petals down on them like snow.

“I was most pleased, of course, to hear that your brother’s regiment would be attached to Duke Ferdinand’s troops,” he said, in an apparent attempt at casual conversation. “Not only for their valuable assistance, but because I hoped to have the chance of resuming our friendship.”

“I, too,” Grey said honestly. “I am only sorry that we cannot meet solely as friends, free of such unpleasant considerations as those I have brought you.”

Von Namtzen gave a lopsided shrug.

“We are soldiers,” he said simply. “We will never be free of such things. And it is part of our friendship, is it not?”

Grey was not sure whether he meant their shared profession, or their shared involvement in recurrent unpleasantness, but it was true, in either case, and he laughed ruefully.

“Still,” von Namtzen went on, knitting his heavy brows, “it is most unfortunate.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Not only the…the occurrence.” Von Namtzen made a brief gesture with his missing arm, which unbalanced him, so that he stumbled, but recovered with a muttered “Scheisse!”

“No,” he resumed. “It is unfortunate that it involved both English and Prussian troops. Had it been our men, and only our own officers who witnessed the crime, it could have been dealt with…more quietly.”

Grey glanced at him. This feature of the situation had not escaped him. The English command could not be seen to deal lightly with such a matter, for fear of losing standing with their German allies. He hadn’t thought consciously about the other side, but plainly the same must be true for the Germans.

“Yes. Would you have done—what you did—had there not been the prospect of a notorious trial and public execution?”

“Killed my lieutenant?” Von Namtzen would not accept any softening of reality. “I do not know. Had the men both been German, it is possible that they would simply have been discharged from the army, perhaps imprisoned for a time, perhaps banished. I think there would have been no trial.”

“So it was my presence, in part, that led to this. You have my great regrets.” God only knew how great.

Von Namtzen turned his head then, and gave him a smile of surprising sweetness.

“I would not for one moment regret your presence, John, no matter what the circumstance.” He had never before used Grey’s Christian name without his title, though Grey had often invited him to do so. He spoke it now with a touching shyness, as though not sure he was entitled to such familiarity.

Von Namtzen coughed, as though embarrassed by this declaration, and hastened to cover it.

“Of course, there is no saying what might be done on any occasion. On the one hand, we—the army, that is to say—do not tolerate such perversions. The penalties are severe. On the other”—he glanced at his missing sleeve, and one side of his mouth lifted—“there is Friedrich.”

“Fried—what, the king?”

“Yes. You know the story?” von Namtzen asked.

“Which one?” Grey said dryly. “Such a man is always the focus of tales—and I suppose some might even be true.”

Von Namtzen laughed at that.

“This one is true,” he assured Grey. “My own father was present at the execution.”

“Execution?” Grey echoed, startled. “Whose?”

“Friedrich’s lover.” The Graf’s momentary laughter had left him, but he smiled crookedly. “When he was a young man, his father—the old king, you know?—obliged him to join the army, though he disliked it intensely. A horror of bloodshed. But he formed a deep attachment to another young soldier, and the two decided to flee the country together.”

“They were caught—of course,” Grey said, a sudden hollow opening behind his breastbone.

“Of course.” Stephan nodded. “They were brought back, both charged with desertion and treason, and the old king had Friedrich’s lover beheaded in the courtyard—Friedrich himself forced to watch from a balcony above. He fainted, my father said, even before the sword fell.”

Grey’s own face felt suddenly cold, his jaw prickling with sweat. He swallowed hard, forcing down a sense of dizziness.

“There was some question,” von Namtzen continued, matter-of-fact, “as to whether Friedrich might himself face the same fate, son or not. But in the end…”

“He bowed to the inevitable, and became not only a soldier, but a great soldier.”

Von Namtzen snorted.

“No, but he did—after spending a year in prison—agree to be married. He ignored his wife; he still does. And there are no children,” he added disapprovingly. “But there she is.” He shrugged.

“His father gave him the chateau at Rheinsberg, and he spent many years there, up to his ears in musicians and actors, but then”—he shrugged again—“the old king died.”

And Friedrich, suddenly aware that his inheritance consisted of several tasty chunks of disconnected and vulnerable land, most of them being eyed by the Habsburgs of Austria, had hastily become a soldier. Whereupon he had united his territories, stolen Silesia from the Austrians, and two years before, decided to invade Saxony for good measure, thus making enemies not only of the Austrians and Saxony, but of Russia, Sweden, and the French.

“And here we all are,” von Namtzen concluded.

“Not a gentleman given to half measures.”

“No, he is not. Nor is he a fool. Whatever the nature of his affections now, they remain private.” Stephan spoke rather grimly, then shook his head, like a dog flinging off water. “Come, it grows soon dark.”

It would be dark soon; already, the air between the trees had thickened, the forest drawing in upon itself. The path before them was still visible, but as they plunged back into the trees, the ground under their feet seemed insubstantial, rocks and tussocks nearly invisible, but unexpectedly solid.

The effort of walking without stumbling kept them from conversation, leaving Grey to reflect on the story of the King of Prussia and his lover—and the irony that the latter had been executed not for crimes of the flesh or seduction of his prince, but for treason. While Captain Bates…He felt as though those sardonic eyes watched him from the forest, and hurried on, feeling darkness at his heels.

Nor was he the only one. He could sense von Namtzen’s disquiet; see it, in the awkward shifting of his broad shoulders, tensed as though fearing some pursuit.

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